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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Ethics panel targets BWC rate cut

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - A former Cleveland-area senator faces potential criminal charges for allegedly using the influence of his office to have his company's workers' compensation insurance premiums lowered.

During a closed-door meeting, the bipartisan Joint Legislative Ethics Committee yesterday determined sufficient evidence exists against Jeffry Armbruster to refer the case to Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.

"On or about Feb. 28, 2006, Jeffry J. Armbruster used his influence as a senator to obtain something of value; to wit, the discussion of legislation of interest to the Bureau of Workers' Compensation, while concurrently discussing changes to [his policy], resulting in a rate reduction for his business interests...," the committee's report reads.

The referral marks the first for the committee, which consists of 12 legislators evenly split between Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate. At least eight votes were needed for referral.

Mr. Armbruster, 59, served the 13th Senate District stretching from Lorain County to eastern Seneca County until the end of last year, when he was forced out by term limits.

He is accused of communicating with BWC representatives to convince them to lower his premiums for Armbruster Energy Stores, which had recently acquired Columbus-area gas stations whose history adversely affected the company's premiums.

The discussions led to an 88 percent premium reduction. Mr. Armbruster is president and 50-percent shareholder of the company.

JLEC said it believes Mr. Armbruster may have violated state law forbidding lawmakers from using the power of their office for personal gain and from receiving direct or indirect compensation from a third party for performance of their duties.

Both are first-degree misdemeanors punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

At the same time he was discussing his premium dilemma with BWC staff members, Mr. Armbruster talked about pursuing "successor liability" legislation to give a potential buyer of a business the right to review that business's prior workers' compensation rate history.

His attorney, Donald Brey, said the then-senator used his own experience as an anecdote.

"The bureau made a mistake," he said. "It was overcharging Armbruster Energy Stores, charging rates for employees who were never employed by Armbruster Energy Stores.

"If somebody is overcharging you and then stops overcharging you, are they giving you something of value?" he asked. "Anybody has a right to ask for a rate review."

Although Mr. Armbruster received no compensation from his company in 2006, his wife, Lee, did.

The referral occurs amid a broader state investigation into how much politics may have steered decisions on workers' compensation premiums for some businesses.

Mr. O'Brien said he plans to meet Mr. Brey before determining whether the case should be presented to a grand jury.

On Wednesday, Republicans pointed to an inspector general's report that determined former Department of Development employee Frankie Coleman, wife of Columbus Mayor Mike Coleman, for possible prosecution for being paid for days she didn't work and then lying about it to investigators.

The report also criticized development staff and her boss, Democratic Lt. Gov. Lee Fisher, for missing obvious "red flags" about her alcohol problems.

"Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," said Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island), chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com,

or 614-221-0496.



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